Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 14: Isaiah, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Isaiah Chapter 20:1-6
1. In the year that Tartan came unto Ashdod, (when Sargon the king of Assyria sent him,) and fought against Ashdod, and took it;
1. Anno quo venit Thartan in Asdod, cum misisset eum Sargon rex Assyriæ, oppugnassetque Asdod, et cepisset;
2. At the same time spake the Lord by Isaiah the son Amoz, saying, Go and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put off thy shoe from thy foot. And he did so, walking naked and barefoot.
2. Tempore illo, inquam, loquutus est Iehova iu manu Isaiæ filii Amoz, dicendo: Vade et solve saccum de lumbis tuis, et calceamentum tuum exrahe de pede tuo; fecitque sic, ambulans nudus et discalceatus.
3. And the Lord said, Like as my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot three years for a sign and wonder upon Egypt and upon Ethiopia;
3. Et dixit Iehova: Sicut ambulavit servus meus Isaias nudus et discalceatus tribus annis, signum et portentum super Ægypto et Ethiopia;
4. So shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives, young and old, naked and barefoot, even with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.
4. Ita abducet rex Assur captivitatem Ægypti, et transmigrationem Æthiopiæ juvenum et senum, nudam et discalceatam, et discoopertos natibus in ignominiam Ægypti.
5. And they shall be afraid and ashamed of Ethiopia their expectation, and of Egypt their glory.
5. Et timebunt, et pudefient ab Æthiopia respectu suo, et ab Ægypto gloriatione (vel, pulchritudine) sua.
6. And the inhabitant of this isle shall say in that day, Behold, such is our expectation, whither we flee for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria: and how shall we escape?
6. Dicetque incola insulæ hujus in die illa; Ecce, quomodo habeat respectus noster, quo confugimus auxilii causa, ut liberemur a facie regis Assur; et quomodo effugiemus nos?
1. In the year that Tartan came to Ashdod. In the preceding chapter Isaiah prophesied about the calamity which threatened Egypt, and at the same time promised to it the mercy of God. He now introduces the same subject, and shews that Israel will be put to shame by this chastisement of the Egyptians, because they placed their confidence in Egypt. He now joins Ethiopia, which makes it probable that the Ethiopians were leagued with the Egyptians, as I have formerly remarked, and as we shall see again at the thirty-seventh chapter.
First, we must observe the time of this prediction. It was when the Jews were pressed hard by necessity to resort, even against their will, to foreign nations for assistance. Sacred history informs us (2Ki 18:17) that Tartan was one of Sennacherib’s captains, which constrains us to acknowledge that this Sargon was Sennacherib, who had two names, as may be easily learned from this passage. We must also consider what was the condition of Israel, for the ten tribes had been led into captivity. Judea appeared almost to be utterly ruined, for nearly the whole country was conquered, except Jerusalem, which was besieged by Rabshakeh. (2Ki 18:13.) Tartan, on the other hand, was besieging Ashdod. Sacred history (2Ki 18:17) mentions three captains; 60 and this makes it probable that Sennacherib’s forces were at that time divided into three parts, that at the same instant he might strike terror on all, and might throw them into such perplexity and confusion that they could not render assistance to each other. Nothing was now left for the Jews but to call foreign nations to their aid. In the mean time, Isaiah is sent by God to declare that their expectation is vain in relying on the Egyptians, against whom the arm of the Lord was now lifted up, and who were so far from assisting them, that they were unable to defend themselves against their enemies. Hence the Jews ought to acknowledge that they are justly punished for their unbelief, because they had forsaken God and fled to the Egyptians.
We must consider the end which is here proposed, for the design of God was not to forewarn the Egyptians, but to correct the unbelief of the people, which incessantly carried them away to false and wicked hopes. In order therefore to teach them that they ought to rely on God alone, the Prophet here foretells what awaits their useless helpers. The warning was highly seasonable, for the Ethiopians had begun to repel the Assyrians, and had forced them to retire, and no event could have occurred which would have been more gladly hailed by the Jews. Lest those successful beginnings should make them wanton, he foretells that this aid will be of short duration, because both the Ethiopians and the Egyptians will soon be most disgracefully vanquished.
2. Go and loose the sackcloth from thy loins. In order to confirm this prophecy by the use of a symbol, the Lord commanded Isaiah to walk naked. If Isaiah had done this of his own accord, he would have been justly ridiculed; but when he does it by the command of the Lord, we perceive nothing but what is fitted to excite admiration and to strike awe. In this nakedness, and in the signs of a similar kind, something weighty is implied. Besides, the Lord does nothing either by himself or by his servants without likewise explaining the reason; and therefore the Prophet does not merely walk naked, but points out the design which the Lord had in view in ordering him to do so. In other respects false prophets imitate the true servants of God, and put on varied and imposing shapes, to dazzle the eyes of the multitude, and gain credit to themselves; but those symbols are worthless, because God is not the author of them.
This ought to be carefully observed in opposition to the Papists, who bring forward empty ceremonies instead of true sacraments. This is the rule with which we ought to meet them. If they proceed from God, we ought to embrace them, but if not, we may boldly reject them; and, indeed, they cannot be adopted without offering an insult to God, because in such cases men usurp his authority. Besides, God does not bring forward signs without the word, for what would a sacrament be if we beheld nothing but the sign? It is the doctrine alone that makes the sacrament, and therefore let us know that it is mere hypocrisy where no doctrine is taught, and that Papists act wickedly when they lay aside doctrine, and give the name of sacrament to empty ceremonies; for the Lord has connected them in such a manner that no man can separate them without infringing that order which he has enjoined.
When the Lord commands him to loose the sackcloth; almost all the commentators infer from it that Isaiah at that time wore a garment of mourning, because he bewailed the distressed condition of Israel; for sackcloth was a mourning dress, as is evident from Joel (Joe 1:13.) Their interpretation is, that this was done in order that, in the dress of culprits, he might supplicate pardon from God, or that it was impossible for his countenance or his dress to be cheerful when his heart was sad, and he could not but be affected with the deepest grief when he beheld so great a calamity. Some think that it was his ordinary dress, because the Prophets, as Zechariah informs us, commonly wore a mantle. (Zec 13:4.) But that conjecture rests on exceedingly slight grounds, and has no great probability. It is more probable that he wore sackcloth as expressive of mourning. Judea was at that time sunk into such a state of indifference, that when men saw their brethren wretchedly distressed and wasted, still they were not affected by it, and did not think that the affliction of their brethren was a matter which at all concerned them. They still thought that they were beyond the reach of danger, and mocked at the Prophets when they threatened and foretold destruction. Hence Micah also complains that no man bewails the distresses of Israel. (Mic 1:11.)
A question arises, Was this actually done, or was it merely and simply a vision which he told to the people? The general opinion is, that the Prophet never went naked, but that this was exhibited to him in a vision, and only once. They allege as a reason, that on account of heat and cold, and other inconveniences of the weather, he could not have walked naked during the whole period of three years. What if we should say that the Prophet wore clothes at home, and also in public, unless when he wished to come forth to teach, and that on such occasions he was accustomed to present to the people a spectacle of nakedness? I pay little attention to the argument, that he was unable to endure heat and cold; for God, who commanded him to do this, could easily strengthen and protect him. But they assign another reason, that nakedness would have been unbecoming in a Prophet. I answer, this nakedness was not more unbecoming than circumcision, which irreligious men might consider to be the most absurd of all sights, because it made an exposure of the uncomely parts. Yet it must not be thought that the Prophet went entirely naked, or without covering those parts which would present a revolting aspect. It was enough that the people understood what the Lord was doing, and were affected by it as something extraordinary.
I am led to form this opinion by what is here said, “By the hand of Isaiah;” for although this mode of expression frequently occurs elsewhere, still we never find it where it does not imply something emphatic, to describe the effect produced. He places himself in the midst between God and his countrymen, so as to be the herald of a future calamity, not only in words, but likewise by a visible symbol. Nor is it superfluous that it is immediately added, He did so. I am therefore of opinion that Isaiah walked naked whenever he discharged the office of a prophet, and that he uncovered those parts which could be beheld without shame.
So far as relates to sackcloth, although it was customary for men in private stations of life to express their guilt in this manner in adversity, yet it is probable that it was with a view to his office that Isaiah made use of this symbol to confirm his doctrine, that he might the better arouse the people from their sluggishness. If at any time the Lord chastise ourselves or our brethren, he does not enjoin us to change our raiment, but we are cruel and (ἄστοργοι) without natural affection, if we are not moved by the afflictions of brethren and the ruin of the Church. If we have any feeling towards God, we ought to be in sadness and tears; and if it be our duty to mourn, we ought also to exhort others and stimulate them by our example to feel the calamities of the Church, and to be touched with some (συμπαθείᾳ) compassion.
3. Three years. Why for such a period? Because that was the time granted to the Egyptians and Ethiopians, during which the Lord gave them a truce for repentance, and at the same time wished to make trial of the obedience of his people, that without delay they might relinquish unlawful aid, and that, though the Egyptians and Ethiopians appeared to be secure, they might know that they were not far from ruin. The Lord intended also to expose the rebellion of wicked men; for undoubtedly many persons made an open display of their impiety when they despised the nakedness of the prophet, and the godly, on the other hand, moved by the sight of his nakedness, though the prosperity of the Ethiopians was delightfully attractive, still did not hesitate to fix their attention on the word. What they were bound to consider was not the nakedness itself, but the mark which the Lord had put upon it; in the same manner as, in the visible sacraments, we ought to behold those things which are invisible.
4. The captivity of Egypt and the removal of Ethiopia. 61 The words “captivity” and “removal” are taken collectively, to denote the multitude of captives and emigrants. Next, he shews that there will be no distinction of age, declaring that the old, as well as the young, shall be led into captivity.
5. And they shall be afraid. He now shews for whose benefit he had foretold these things about the Egyptians and Ethiopians. It was in order that the Jews might learn amidst their afflictions to hope in God, and might not have recourse to foreign aid, which the Lord had forbidden.
6. Lo, what is become of our expectation? He calls them expectation, or lurking, because the Jews turned towards them, whenever they were oppressed by any calamity, and placed their hope in them. We are accustomed to turn our eyes to that quarter from which we expect any assistance. Hence also, to “look” often signifies, in the Hebrew language, to “hope.” (Ps. 34:5, Job 6:19.) Now, they ought to have looked to God alone. Their wandering levity is therefore censured. And the same thing must happen to us, and deservedly, that when we have been invited by God, and refuse the sure refuge which he offers to us, and allow ourselves to be captivated by the delusions of Satan, we may lie down naked and destitute with shame and disgrace.
And the inhabitants of the island shall say. He gives the name island not only to Jerusalem, but to the whole of Judea; and it is generally thought that the name is given because its shores are washed by the Mediterranean sea. But I think that there is a different reason for this metaphor, for it is but a small portion of the sea that washes it; but as an island is separated from other lands, so the Lord separated Judea from other countries. It was kept apart from all the nations, which cherished a mortal hatred towards the Jews; for there was a “wall” between them, as Paul says, (Eph 2:14,) which Christ at length threw down. Here again Isaiah confirms his prophecy. If you are not now moved by my nakedness, you shall one day be taught by the event, that these words were not spoken to you in vain. Thus, at a late hour, obstinate and rebellious men are constrained by God to confess their guilt, so that they are struck with amazement, and argue within themselves how they could be so greatly blinded by their own stubbornness.
“Tartan, and Rabsaris, and Rabshakeh”
FT318 “The Egyptians prisoners (Heb. the captivity of Egypt) and Ethiopians captives.” — Eng. Ver. “The captives of Egypt and the exiles of Cush.” — Lowth